99 Problems

Published on February 16th, 2017 | by S. Lynn Alderman

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Oh Mutha, My MUTHA!

Guess what, muthas? I have a mutha. Yesterday my brother told me she totaled her car, and when I called to see if she was okay, she referred me to her post about it on Facebook. She declined medical help, but this morning agreed to go to get checked out. She wouldn’t go to urgent care, though, because in the past, they put “some line at the bottom of the paper saying I am a successfully treated unmedicated bipolar. I told them to take it off, but they didn’t.”

I know why they didn’t take it off. They will never take it off. Even though she isn’t. Because bipolar as a diagnosis is poorly understood. And she is totally, totally off. Any small town GP anywhere would meet her and, with minimal documentary encouragement, think, “sure: bipolar, that explains it.”

But let me explain it. My mom grew up in southern West Virginia. Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia, as the license plates say. Her dad, my grampa, married my grama when she was 17, eager to leave her uncle’s home, where she’d been indentured since her mother died at 32 of tuberculosis, when Grama was 10. Grampa was a coal miner and his father was known to be an evil man. Cussed god in the field, my grama said. Evil. Cursed. And his children were, too, seems like. I used to snoop through my grama’s wardrobe in the upstairs bedroom at every visit and read a wrinkled letter from my great uncle, addressed from the state mental hospital, saying his wife, who had driven over the mountain to her death along with three small children, deserved what she got. Grama said the hem of his wife’s dress would just tremble, nervous in fear of my great uncle. Then god took her, to everyone’s relief. Hatred and fear. Such hatred and fear. My grampa was a handsome young man, a hard worker, and may or may not have bashed his father’s head in with a windlass to protect his younger brother, a different great uncle, who hid in a tree or in some hollow (“holler”) up the mountain. The bashing might have caused great-grampa to die. Or maybe someone else caught up with him and did him in. When I was in elementary school, Grampa lived in a brown-and-light-brown Ford Custom van stuffed with money that he didn’t trust the bank to guard. He liked to watch the ducks at the lake. We’d send him non-perishable Hickory Farms sausage gift boxes at Christmas.

Mom was the first born of five. Three girls and two boys. My grama did her best, with her “nerve” problems and preference for “farm work over housework.” My grampa also did his best, which included mining the deep earth year after year between fuming, frightening rages. And funny tricks like scratching on his children’s windows at night moaning “Raw head and bloody bones……”  My mom covered her head with the blanket, so the lack of air would make her sleepy. She still does it. She was the first of her three sisters to be recruited to work in Washington DC in various government agencies as secretaries, in a totally, totally Mad Men way. Shorthand and everything. My mom was “Miss Department of Agriculture” or something. I am serious. Drop dead gorgeous and clueless. I think “things happened.”

Okay. So my dad lived in a nearby mining community. He is a whole different story, heavy with poverty and sadness and depressed parents and secrets. And amazing determination, optimism and light, too. My parents went to the same high school, two years apart, started writing each other when Dad was in Vietnam. They dated long distance for years, got married after she turned him down a bunch of times because he was too wild. I came along a year later. A carbon copy of my dad, if you ask my mom. When she’s mad, at least. And sometimes when she is proud. But usually when she is mad.

Here’s what I remember and treasure most: My sweet mother, her heavy, wavy dark brown hair and her molasses voice surrounding me with safety when I got hurt, “Oh, honey…” She was delighted by me, my ideas about things. My ability to make sense of things. I felt proud of myself when I would explain what my teacher could have done to explain a math problem more clearly. She seemed intrigued by my notion that if we made a schedule or had a routine, it would be fun.

Somehow the warm water drained out of the mommy bathtub when I was 8 or so, and I was left there just like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, feeling naked, cold and kind of blah. My mom just sort of left us, even though I could see her right in front of me, lying on the couch with her arm over her eyes. Or wandering through the kitchen or hallway or wherever. You could yell “Mom!” all day and she would move right past. You could have a screaming contest with your brother in your bedroom and that was just fine. The world stopped making sense to her and she made shallower and shallower steps into it.

She bought me five pairs of different solid-colored, double-knit elastic-waist polyester old-lady pants for $2 each at Gaylords to start fifth grade in 1981 and didn’t understand me when I said that people were making fun. I used a nickel to carve “I hate Theresa Pye” in the green wall of the school bathroom stall about it, but never told that to anyone. She said wearing a bonnet like Laura Ingalls would look darling. “Things happened,” like they do. Heavenly mansions were promised for Pentecostal modesty and forbearance, but the effort didn’t turn out to be worthwhile. She felt sorry for the wife of the military chaplain who felt me up, so never reported him to anyone. She didn’t want to expose the neighbor who stalked and terrorized me in middle school. She saw me, but didn’t see me. My dad was gone all the time since he was in the military and then was gone with his own remote coping skills and then he was gone because he died.

I became invisible.

When I was in high school, she landed in a locked inpatient mental health facility. She agreed to inpatient assessment with the belief there would be couples counseling. Christian couples counseling that she’d seen advertised in the newspaper. I think it is likely my dad allowed her to be admitted to give us all a break. He might have helped trick her. I can’t really imagine how in the world this might have felt to him, or to her. But my teenage self sure loved it. It was so relaxing. I was so angry. I stayed angry for a long time. And when my dad died, I became unmoored and exploded. Exploded in slow motion, for years and years.

With much, much effort of all sorts, I stopped being angry. A very wise counselor gently suggested that I might stop wishing for my memory of my healthy mom, that I might recognize the limitations and strengths of the one I have and move forward. It stopped me, frozen, novel and frightening and freeing. Accepting, forgiving of both of us. But in the way we tumble through time, remembering and forgetting, I forget that recommendation again and again. Painfully, again and again, pining for my mom, looking to hide in the cave of her hair. “Oh, honey…” Recently on that stupid goddamn Facebook meme (okay, maybe I am sometimes still a bit angry), I reported my first seven jobs, all of which I had while I was living in her house and she blithely commented that she wasn’t aware of half of them. This morning I told her – again – what my current job is. No one can see me and I don’t expect them to.

Eight years ago, I became a mutha of a daughter myself. Then did it again. And it is hard to be so visible, so very, very seen. Every single tiny little thing. Every expression. Everything I wear. Every wrinkle. All my bruises and bad breath and every body part. Every damn thing that happens. From the exposed shock of labor to the dilemma of my bathroom door not having a lock. “Privacy, please!” And it is wonderful, too. I find myself talking about the confusing parts of being alive, alive in a body, a female body, which I never talked about with anyone. Giggling about the weirdness of things and how bizarre it all can be. Heady and weighted with the power I sometimes realize I wield over these small people. Explaining things and arming them with survival tools, like my girls and I are a team in a wasteland of beauty and snares. Admitting when I’m wrong. Being forgiven. Being believed. Wonderful. And awful and overwhelming. And wonderful.

I was the age my oldest is now when my mom started to fade. And since I waited until practically my last living egg to have children, I am swooping up on menopause already, even though my youngest just turned four. I am moody and overwhelmed. And I can’t tell if it is normal or hormones or…the Taker. That hides mothers away that once were present, hides them right in plan sight. I am trying, praying, staying. Binding myself to the mast. I hope. I am here. I am still here.

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About the Author

S. Lynn Alderman

S. Lynn Alderman lives in North Carolina with her husband and two daughters. She works as a mental health clinician, so must maintain a modicum of anonymity. She has a background in news reporting, publishing, design, fine art and surly bartending. MUTHA is the first place her personal writing has appeared.



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